How passion, technology and resolve saved local college theater programs during the pandemic • Sacramento News & Review

By Patti Roberts

In the spring of 2020, Folsom Lake College’s Theater Arts Department was planning and producing various drama projects when COVID lockdowns hit, halting all live productions.

As with many colleges and universities, there was an immediate rush on how to continue. Students and instructors faced challenges that no one had anticipated – and no one was prepared.

“When classes suddenly moved away, the projects we had going on in person were canceled and we then had several months left to move on,” recalls David Harris, professor of theater and film at Folsom Lake College. . “The options were somewhat limited at first by the technology available.”

First, there was the challenge of how to teach the arts that rely on the interaction, on stage between actors, as well as all the elements of theatrical production such as set design and costumes, lighting and his.

“An important aspect of acting classes is teaching team building, problem solving, and cultural understanding,” Harris said. “Theatre is the art of collaboration. This is the most important aspect of what we do. »

Ashley Christensen, then a drama student at Folsom Lake, saw the problem right away.

“During the shutdowns, I definitely lost that physical connection to those around me,” she recalls. “Theatre is amazing online and offline, but nothing beats being in the same room or on the same stage, making eye contact with your stage partner. And there’s nothing quite like performing in front of a live audience.

But to persevere, Folsom College turned to its technical team, already known for its innovations. It was a two-person team: drama teacher and department head Ian Wallace and theater technician Cameron Hoyt.

“Some areas of the theater internship aren’t really possible on Zoom, like stage carpentry or acting,” Harris said. “But thanks to the creative thinking and tenacity of Ian and Cameron, we have found a method that retains vital aspects of theater education such as collective problem solving and entertaining storytelling.”

Enter remote video recording and home solo performances, green screens and technical magic that have been merged for online productions. Folsom Lake faculty sent home remote production kits with student actors, which included lighting, camera, audio and green screen setups. All of this allowed the actors to present their work alone in apartments, garages, bedrooms and home offices.

“From my desk, I directed the actors where to look so it looked like they were talking to each other,” Harris explained. And using computer animation software, we created a dynamic fantasy environment.

Christensen, who now attends Sacramento State University, was surprised by what was accomplished.

“When classes first closed, I was really sad because we were in the middle of rehearsal for the musical, Pippin apple,” she says. “When we found out that an in-person show wasn’t going to be possible, the drama department had a great idea to have the cast make a video of us singing and dancing to a song from the show. Each of us filmed ourselves at home dancing to the choreography we learned for the song, and we also recorded ourselves singing the song.

The production can be viewed on YouTube

Drama student Ashley Christensen hones her skills. Courtesy photograph

Luther Hanson, a theater and film arts professor at Sacramento City College, also juggled technology to connect with his drama students.

“For most of the first year, most theaters were just trying to improve Zoom Theater or other versions of it,” Hanson observed. “We have all improved in technology to present coins. I thought it was fun: we would dress up in our own little houses, we would all set up in front of our green screens, and then the cast, sound and video crew would record.

Hanson nods to Folsom Lake College for its breakthrough technology.

“Folsom Lake College did a different version of live streaming from home with a product called VMix, where they were able to take eight different live streams from eight different actor homes and layer them on top of each other to give the impression that the actors were in the same place.”

Luther Hanson, professor of theater and film at Sacramento City College. Courtesy photograph

For their production of Dream of a summer nightFolsom Lake put it all on the table — well, actually in theater — by live-streaming the performance which incorporated innovative interaction and video production.

“Our in-person cameramen moved in concert with our actors to present a story similar to the live television musical theater productions we’ve been seeing recently,” Harris said. “Each day was a learning experience for us and the students/actors. The entire production can be viewed on YouTube

Sacramento City College drama students, meanwhile, were able to present an outdoor production of Hamlet in the courtyard of the campus accessible via Youtube.

“We performed Hamlet together for three cameras, streaming it live on YouTube,” Hanson said. “We were all very excited, having barely been around other humans for a year and a half, and we learned a lot, we had fun and it went well.” The entire production can be viewed on YouTube:

Although a lot of thought and creativity went into the virtual performances, everyone involved recognizes that a lot was missing. Students are generally grateful to be able to return to performing in front of a live audience.

“Human beings in the room together – students, audience members, our community partners, and all of us on the production teams and teaching staff,” Harris emphasized. “We were all very aware of the human aspect of theater that was being lost.”

Professor David Harris

While grateful to be able to perform in front of live audiences again, what local colleges have learned about new technologies can pave the way for hybrid productions, offered through both live and virtual performances.

“Right now we are about to open The Laramie Project, which will be in person and again livestreamed,” Hanson said. “A lot of theaters do it, to try to reach everyone who wants to watch.”

Christensen, who remains involved in Folsom’s Falcon’s Eye Theater’s upcoming production of TO RENT, also look on the bright side.

“I did however gain more knowledge in terms of video/zoom and working online with film and theater which will be beneficial in the future as we continue with new technologies,” she said. declared.